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Minor flaps obscure real race issues

By Conor Friedersdorf, Special to CNN
  • Conor Friedersdorf says U.S. ignores tough racial issues to focus on individual flaps
  • Recent row between Tea Party, NAACP shows how quickly race issues get distorted, he says
  • Black official was forced out over video in which she discussed white farmer's case
  • Friedersdorf: Attaching punishment to honest talk about race cuts off nation's progress

Editor's note: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based journalist who writes on national affairs. He is currently taking submissions for the photography site, and he can be reached on Twitter.

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- In the midst of a prolonged recession, two wars, and an ongoing environmental catastrophe, it is unfortunate that inconsequential controversies about race are among America's most widely discussed subjects.

The relationship among blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups is important, especially in a country where slavery, Jim Crow laws, and their legacy remain relevant.

What vexes are the particular aspects of race that we focus on. Ignored are the tough issues: social and economic inequality, prison rates, percentage of births out of wedlock, inequities in the education system, fatherless families, etc. Instead we obsess over any individual instance of racism, actual or alleged, so long as it morphs into controversy with political implications.

What shaped your views on race?

Its relative importance hardly matters. Take the criminal justice system, a subject fraught with racial baggage given the history of police mistreating minorities, rates of violent crime that are persistently higher among black Americans, and a court system where it still helps to be white.

Video: Getting beyond race
Video: Defamation suit considered
Video: Breitbart sparks debate
Video: Sherrod's NAACP speech

President Obama could have drawn on any number of worthy cases to address systemic inequities. Instead he found the occasion after the low-stakes arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer.

The racial controversies prominent in this week's news cycle are similarly peripheral to the actual racial problems that the U.S. faces. In a recent resolution, the NAACP called on leaders of the Tea Party to do a better job repudiating racist elements within their diffuse, decentralized ranks. As a result, a pre-existing argument about whether the Tea Party movement is racist intensified, and some small number of movement conservatives pushed back by insisting, absent any serious evidence, that it's actually the NAACP that is racist.

A couple years hence, only a few of us will remember that any of this happened. Should we relate the story to our grandchildren, they'll think we're making it up.

I hardly believe what happened to America's latest undeserving victim of politicized racial controversy. Her name is Shirley Sherrod, and her story illustrates an American pathology. Persuaded that the subject of race is important, we invest excessive importance in specific racial controversies, as though every one must bear the full weight of the nation's racial anxieties.

Sherrod is an obscure bureaucrat who helps rural farmers. She is black. As a little girl, she lived in a place where there were lynchings and cross burnings, and she dreamt of going north. Before she came of age, white men murdered her father and were never jailed for it. As a result, she made a pledge to herself: that rather than abandon the South, she would help as many of its black residents as possible.

In a moving speech before the NAACP, she explained how that attitude persisted until an occasion 24 years ago, when she was working for a small nonprofit. She was assigned to help a white farmer whose superior, less-than-friendly attitude she resented.

At first, she gave the farmer less help than was in her power, pawning him off on a white lawyer. Soon, however, God helped her to see the error in her ways, she helped the farmer to keep his land, and ever since she's understood that her calling to help people isn't about black and white, it's about aiding poor people of any color.

Would you believe that this woman was forced to resign?

Andrew Breitbart provoked the controversy by publishing a severely edited video of her speech on his popular conservative website. It highlighted her reluctance to help the white farmer. It neglected to include the background, her abrupt change of heart, or that the whole episode happened more than two decades ago. Inexplicably, an Obama administration official forced her out before seeing the full video.

Who among us is safe if this woman can be fired for racism? The answer is obvious: those of us who assiduously avoid the subject of race and participation in politics. This is the legacy of people on both sides of the political spectrum who race-bait on behalf of their ideological teams: They contribute to a country where regular people are unwilling to talk honestly about race and other fraught subjects, because often enough it results in a lost job or public vilification and embarrassment.

Today's racial controversies concern matters far less consequential than slavery, lynchings, or Jim Crow laws. That's heartening progress. In part, we've made this progress via persuasion and changing minds. It's a process that requires the airing of racial attitudes, rather than their sublimation.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to rid ourselves of political activists willing to use the immoral means of race-baiting to achieve political ends. What we must do is stop taking their bait.

It would help if there were space in our public conversation to say, "I strongly disagree with your racial attitudes, and encourage you to change them," rather than "You're a racist who should be fired and ridiculed."

The stigma attached to racists in America is a happy consequence of the hard-won moral consensus that bigotry is abhorrent, but perhaps we'd be better off if its full force were reserved for the most extreme cases.

It's tough to know for sure.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Conor Friedersdorf.